This paper looks at the historical spectacle of the condemned and punished body and argues that the performance work of Australian artist Mike Parr, entitled Close the Concentration Camps, employs a strategic relationship with this historical image of injured corporeality.
Introduction: The Condemned and Punished Body
On 2 March 1757, Damiens the regicide was condemned to ‘make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris’, where he was to be ‘taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds’: then,‘in the said cart, to the Place de Greve, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and calves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur, melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds’.
Foucault: Discipline and Punish 1977: 3
In the beginning of his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of a Prison, Foucault documents the fate of a condemned man as he is violently tortured to death. This public display of violent retribution as a form of diabolical spectacle was commonplace across Europe in the Middle Ages, evoking comparisons with the injury and violence of the Christian lion fights of Roman times. Foucault argues that it was as if the punishment must equal, if not exceed the savagery of the crime (Foucault, 1977: 9). The body of the condemned was the target and location for the amende honorable, through which the regicide was allowed to make the honourable amendment for the crime, and the public execution drew enormous crowds (Foucault, 1977: 11). Decapitation, also used as a form of terrorism in warfare, was a popular form of punishment and reached its zenith with the guillotine in France (Favazza, 1996:4). According to Foucault, this form of public torture and punishment was later replaced by punishment in the form of a denial of liberties …
Franz Kafka’s The Penal Colony begins with the ominous sentence (in translation), “It is a remarkable piece of apparatus”. In the short story, an instrument of torture is described upon which persons are simultaneously mutilated and executed. A condemned person is strapped naked to the bed and then, over the course of twelve hours, needles inscribe words onto the prisoner’s flesh. The condemned is not told the crime they have committed: they must decipher the name of the crime carved on to their body. By the time the prisoner has realised their crime, they are pierced and killed by the machine. Central to Kafka’s narrative is the idea that the injured body is capable of conveying a message to the individual as well as indicating or pointing to a value system existing within the social sphere, beyond the body itself. The punished or condemned injured body is a public body, its message intended for wider society. Whether the punished injured body is acting as a deterrent to criminally unacceptable behaviour, a display of authoritative power or an inscription of institutionally authorised social codes, the injured body acts as a powerful and symbolic social text and communicative device.
The notion of the skin as a canvas, a surface on which to communicate, is resonant in Mike Parr’s performance work, Close The Concentration Camps. Parr uses the body as a penetrable surface upon which messages can be inscribed. In the first section of this paper I examine Parr’s performance in the context of Australian refugee detention policies, and argue that Parr’s body is situated as the punished and condemned body of the Australian refugee. In the second, I bring Foucault’s discourse theory to bear on the performance, and argue that Parr’s body in this performance is capable of pointing to a value system and political rhetoric pervading Australian national ideology.
1. Mike Parr’s Close the Concentration Camps and Australian Detention Centres
Mike Parr and History
For years Parr has been the subject of enormous controversy generated by one or two conservative art critics in the mainstream press often hysterically denouncing the work, failing to see it in terms of performance but always returning it to a base representational stratum . . .
Edward Scheer as cited in www.realtimearts.net/rt43/scheer.html
Mike Parr is considered a controversial artist amongst some art critics, however he is widely regarded as one of the most gifted living Australian artists of his generation (www.shermangalleries.com.au/artists_exhib/artists/parr.html). Parr is a cross-disciplinary artist, experimenting and collaborating on projects in the mediums of sculpture, video, installation, performance, etching and drawing. During his performances, Parr has burnt his body, lacerated and pierced his body, and deprived himself of food. He has a very demanding personal process, often involving regimes of fasting and not sleeping in preparation for an endurance performance. He has a prolific output and has produced over one thousand works in a little over ten years.
Mike Parr as cited in
Parr’s performances, commencing in the early part of the 1970s, place the body at the centre of the experience and routinely make for uncomfortable and confronting viewing.
Of late, Parr’s performances have become increasingly political, his strategic aim has been to create a ‘space’ in which the Australian national identity is dissected, discussed and deconstructed (Bromfield, 1991:7). Parr has a conscious self-focusing approach to art and loads his work with autobiographical or self-referential motifs. His performances often ritualise and formalise discomfort in an attempt to take his body beyond the limits of the physical (Geczy, 2001:43)
For Mike Parr it is the compulsory socialised performance of self, the pervasive and suffocating requirement on all individuals to perform the endless role of consumer, citizen and subject.
Edward Scheer as cited in
The performance I discuss below, entitled Close The Concentration Camps, is a good example of the visceral nature of his work, its intense scrutiny of Australian identity and its political concerns.
Close The Concentration Camps
Mike Parr is one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists, whose video, drawings and photographs and other works have been shown widely in Australia and overseas. Renowned for performances that test the limits of body and mind, Parr has for many years ‘presented Australian culture with a means to measure its own state of psychic health
(Bruce James, ABC Radio National as cited in Information Sheet).
The above commentary featured on an information sheet distributed at Mike Parr’s June 2002 performance at Monash University Museum of Art in Melbourne, entitled Close the Concentration Camps. This performance was preceded by one in Sydney entitledMalevitsch: A Political Arm, in which Parr nailed his arm to the wall of the Art Space gallery and sat for two days. Throughout Close the Concentration Camps at Monash, Parr sat in the middle of the gallery, without making eye contact with the spectator, crumpled on a hardback chair facing a mirrored wall. He remained extremely still, almost motionless throughout the performance. He was wearing an old 1940’s suit and white shirt, and beside his chair was a battered brown suitcase. His clothes were reminiscent of the black and white photos of Jews, from the Second World War, wearing brown suits with patched together elbows and a star of David on the sleeve being marched into Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany (and throughout Eastern Europe). Combined with this defeated posture and evocative costuming was the alarming fact that Parr had sewn his lips together. The sewing of his lips implicated his entire face, the stitches dissecting his face in a bizarre and uncomfortable cross-stitch, dried blood tracks smeared across his cheeks and chin. In addition, the word ‘ALIEN’ could be seen branded on his thigh where a small section of his trousers had been cut away. Projected across the long, white wall beside him was the phrase ‘Close the Concentration Camps’. Parr sat in the gallery from 1-6pm, the smell of singed flesh and antiseptic mingling affrontingly in the air. From behind, he looked like an old man sitting quietly, as if he was waiting for a bus, with his hands neatly folded in his lap. From the front, Parr looked like the victim of a serious bashing.
The gallery entrance was at the opposite end of the room from where Parr sat. The audience members would enter the gallery and take quite some time to approach Parr, opting to stand near the back wall and look at Parr’s reflection in the mirror that faced him. Also in the room was a plain clothes nurse and a stainless steel operating table stocked with sterile instruments and bandages. The nurse, who had been responsible for stitching up Parr’s face, was routinely checking and cleaning his wounds with antiseptic throughout the five- hour performance. There was a plastic black bucket at Parr’s feet, presumably for him to spit or vomit into if necessary. Next to Parr’s chair was a small gas bottle powering a stove-top burner, and beside that was a silver bowl with the branding implement in it. The branding of Parr’s thigh had occurred in the gallery moments before the door was opened for the audience. To the right of Parr, tucked unobtrusively away in the gallery corner was a camera pointed at Parr and a laptop computer revealing the simultaneous real time web cast of the performance (Appendix Four, Five and Six).
In another room in the Monash University Museum of Art, extracts of text chosen by Parr from the 2000 Immigration Detention Centre Inspection Report (also titled Not the Hilton) were projected on the wall. These observations from government officials, commenting on the state of general affairs in the Australian detention centers, present a ‘montage of contradiction and insensitivity’ (from the Information Sheet distributed at performance).
DIMA [Department of Immigration Affairs] advises that soccer and volleyball are available. The Committee observed few outdoor recreation facilities available apart from a yet to be assembled children’s playground and a shaded area when visited. The climate of Woomera in January is not conducive to outdoor activities, the limited indoor facilities included table tennis.
In yet another room were letters Parr had written to a colleague and friend (David Bromfield) articulating his rationale for the performance and questions he wished to investigate. There were also two large, framed maps on the wall, one showing the Northern and Western suburbs of Melbourne, and indicating the location of the Maribyrnong Detention Centre, and one of Munich in Southern Germany, indicating where the Concentration Camp Dachau was. Distances to the centre of the City in each case were comparable.
Australia’s Detention Centres
The context of this performance is significant, since it took place at a time in Australian culture when the debate regarding the treatment of those who arrive in Australia seeking refuge had come to a head, after the now notorious incident involving the Norwegian vessel (the Tampa) and its cargo, and the subsequent instigation by the Australian Government of the ‘Pacific Solution’. Stuart Rosewarne, a Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Sydney, makes this comment on Australian policy towards asylum seekers:
Australia’s treatment of refugees is a distressing paper in our history. In the last decade and a half, both Labor and Coalition governments have done much to compromise our obligations as a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees. But the Howard Government has built on Labor initiatives with uncompromising zeal. It has maintained detention of asylum seekers, limited refugee rights to sanctuary through Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs), and created the ‘Pacific solution’ by excising Australian territory in the ‘migration zone’ and establishing offshore Pacific island detention centres. The rationale for these and other changes to migration policy has been to restore the orderly management of Australia’s refugee program as well as to defend the integrity of the nation’s borders from the threat of a supposed invasion of ‘boat people’.
Across the country in Detention Centres where the refugees were imprisoned until ‘processed’ by Australian Immigration, refugee inmates were embarking on dangerous hunger strikes and sewing their lip together in angry protests at their imprisonment. As CNN World News reported it on January 23rd 2002,
About 60 hunger strikers in Woomera have sewn their lips together with cotton and more than 200 others have been refusing food and water as part of a protest action over the slow processing of protection visas and the mandatory imprisonment of illegal immigrants.
And as The Age newspaper in Australia reported on it that same day
Fifty asylum seekers at the Woomera detention centre had sewn their lips together as part of an ongoing hunger strike, a detainee said today. An Immigration Department spokesman today said there were no reports of detainees receiving medical treatment or attending hospital because of the hunger strike. He said the only reports of self-harm were four incidents of lip-sewing by adult men.
These protests could also be understood as attempts to garner media coverage in order to communicate their plight and be granted a voice. The bodies of the refugees were situated as the condemned and punished body of the prisoner, the spectacle of torture subverted by the self-administering mutilation.
Analysis of the performance
Close The Concentration Camps was a visceral, abject and confronting performance. Parr made merciless comparisons between Australian policy on refugees and Detention Centres and Nazi attitudes towards Jews in Concentration Camps. Parr literally branded his body with the deliberately provocative word ‘Alien’, referencing the legal word for illegal foreigners, as well as a word with more popular connotations. The word Alien has a derogatory connotation and links the idea of being ‘not the same’ with the concept of ‘dangerous’. Popular culture suggests that aliens are Martians from outer space who come to Earth covered in slime and kill, maim and subjugate humans. The literal branding of the word on his thigh metaphorically suggested the way in which Australians crudely brand refugees as ‘illegals’. Further, it created a comparison to the branding of the Jews in Germany, most evident in the Star of David, or the pink triangle that homosexuals were asked to wear to distinguish them as different from everyone else. The comparisons Parr made between the attitudes of German citizens whose villages and towns were not far from the camps exterminating millions of Jewish people, and the attitudes of Melbournians, were lucid, powerful and simple. In his letters framing his artistic rationale and further supported by the two framed maps, Parr articulated that the German villagers had closed their consciousness to the atrocities nearby. He argued that Melbourne citizens, who live with a detention centre within their suburban landscape, are doing the precisely the same thing.
Parr took this thematic of creating an atmosphere designed to make the audience feel implicated further with the use of a mirror. The mirrored wall framed the audience in Parr’s performance as passive, silent spectators, as to look at the artist’s injured face and burnt leg most easily meant viewing one’s own image coupled with Parr’s. Alternatively you could walk towards the mirror, and then turn and face Parr head on. During my time in the gallery, not many audience members adopted this confrontational viewing perspective. In fact, it was very difficult once you had entered the performance space to confront Parr’s body. Faced with the back of him, there was an element of visceral fear as to what someone with their lips stitched together would look like at such close range. The conflict became personal once you had seen his distorted face in the mirror. Not to look at him face to face, front on, without the aid of the representation in the mirror, would seem to be engaging in the type of assent Parr was critiquing. This implication of the audience through the use of the mirror, paired with the affronting comparison to Nazi Germany Parr makes throughout the performance, provoked reflection on the critical issues before the audience on an individual, subjective level. Parr’s expression of solidarity for and empathy with the refugee detainees mirrors not only the political desperation of their actions, but the state of suffering and isolation forced on them by the institutional power of Australia’s Detention Centres. Parr’s distance, emphasised by his strategic decision not to make eye contact with the audience, both metaphorically and literally, meant that he was symbolically isolated. This isolation is another expression of empathy, a representation of the state of things for refugee detainees in Australia.
The sewing of his lips has two specific semiotic functions in this performance. Firstly, it provides a literal representation of the silence of the refugees as they are without a voice in the detention centres, without a forum to be publicly heard. Secondly, it can be read as a visceral metaphor for the ‘silence’ there was on this issue in Australia at the time. Silence, and its suffocating, oppressive presence was used as a symbol of the deadly nature of silent assent throughout Close the Concentration Camps. Parr’s silence throughout the performance, his stillness and wordlessness, is framed and subsequently highlighted by the large amount of written material outside the gallery: namely his letters and the slide projections of the Detention Centre report. Parr uses silence as a call to arms, his injured body providing a kind of wordless scream. His violently injured body coupled with its silence suggests a physical manifestation of an act of internal repression that has forced its way through to the surface: as if Australia expects refugees, or those who bring trauma here, to assimilate, disappear, forget, and the cost of that repression, that silence, is damaging.
The presence of a nursing attendant and an abundance of sterile, medical implements and apparatus in the performance space, juxtaposed with the clearly damaged and bleeding body of the performer, created a tension between the metaphor of ‘fixing’ or ‘healing’ the body and the intentional act of injury. The apparatus, there to take away or address the pain, were also positioned as the cause of the pain. Implicit in this tension is a suggestion by Parr of the relationship between Australia as a nation, and the refugee detainees.
Parr’s stitched up face is emblematic of the stitched lips on the condemned and punished bodies of the detainees. But Parr extended the emblem by taking the stitching of the lips further, so much so in fact that his facial features were distorted by the stitching. His face was taken into a new configuration. This ritualised representation of the act of the detainees ultimately provides Parr with a mythologised anti-face, a face that resonates because it projects an image of constructed, ‘stitched-up’ and distorted identity. Parr’s identity is no longer his own, his image is distorted, manipulated and silent. The parallels to the refugee condition are indeed evident here.
Parr’s performance entangles his body with the desperate suffering of the refugees in Australia, making a bold political statement with his injured body referring to the condemned and punished body, and providing a focal point and personal context for the entire performance. Further, Parr uses the punished and condemned body to make the ‘honorable amendment’ on behalf of the Australian people that Foucault talked about inDiscipline and Punish. His body is put through torture that is equivalent to the nature of the crime, in this case the treatment of Asylum seekers by the Australian government, in order to amend the injustice.
2. Politics, the body, and resistance in Close The Concentration Camps
The body now serves as an instrument or intermediary: if one intervenes upon it to imprison it, or to make it work, it is in order to deprive the individual of a liberty that is regarded both as a right and as a property. From being an art of unbearable sensation, punishment has become an economy of suspended right.
Foucault, 1977: 11
Parr’s unambiguous political statement raises the question of whether and how his injured body supports the political theme of Close the Concentration Camps. The performance was criticised in Australian academic publications as simply ‘dramatising the plight of the refugee in Australia’ (Geczy 2003: 46). Is Parr’s injured body merely a dramatised stand-in for the real body of a refugee detainee? Discourse theory, in particular Foucauldian notions of discourse and power, is a useful theoretical language with which to examine the political technology of the injured body, and provides some illumination into how Parr’s injured body in performance can, on the contrary, be constructed and understood as strategic and subversive. Talking about the body in performance in discursive terms is a theoretical approach that allows us to consider the aesthetics and materiality of the body in performance, as well as to examine the influence of the structure of the performance, the positioning (and presence) of the spectator and the social commentary the performance might frame. Discourse theory allows us to consider how these elements of performance subjugate the body through the diffuse workings of discourse and power and consider how we might read this injured body in performance as a social and cultural text.
Foucault stresses that the construction and operation of discourse is associated with relations of power. Bound up in the regulation of discourse and its practices are power relations which orchestrate the formation of the discursive field and it’s constituted outside (Foucault 1977: 19). However, Foucault also states,
Discourses are not subservient to power. Discourses can be both an instrument and an effect of power. Discourse is also a hindrance, a stumbling block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy. Discourse transmits and produces power: reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it.
Foucault 1978: 100-101
In other words, Foucault understands discourse as embodying, and constitutive of power, but at the same time as resistant to it, and his statement that resistance is ‘written in’ to power seems supported by this complex understanding. Butler interprets Foucault as arguing that power causes individuals to push the nature of institutional and social boundaries, to re-signify and potentially self-subvert the unwritten, oppressive law that power purports to support (Butler, 1993:99). Resistance is an effect of the dynamic of power. So, effectively, power works to define the boundaries and borders, which once articulated, is opposed and resisted by individuals or collectives. Without power, resistance has no organised nature. Thus power has the effect of making the individual productive, working actively to respond to that which power has refused.
Both Mike Parr’s injured body in performance, and the actions of detainees in Australian detention centres that inspired it, provide excellent instances of this concept of discourse embodying resistance and power by its very literal display of both opposing forces. The detainees in Australian detention centres who stitched their lips together and embarked on rigorous hunger strikes, reclaimed their bodies as sites of strategic resistance. Their subversive, political acts of self-injury, harnessed the historical image of the tortured body of the condemned. They employed this image to symbolise the brutal conditions they were forced to endure. In Close the Concentration Camps, Parr revisits the historical, condemned body as a body with subversive potential, and presents the tortured, self-mutilated body as a polysemic political statement. His body is a politically charged vehicle, which creates parallels between the kind of barbaric conditions associated with punishment before the Enlightenment and the treatment of refugee detainees in Australia. Inscribed in Parr’s injured body is both the effect of power (the branding of the refugees as Alien, the silencing of the refugee and the political voice), and the starting point for an oppositional strategy. His body is able to simultaneously represent two opposing sides of the coin: the refugee condition and the Australian condition. Parr’s body reveals two kinds of silences, two kinds of brutality and two kinds of acts of resistance.
Punishment by Denial of Liberties
The more monstrous a criminal he was, the more he must be deprived of light, he must not see, or be seen.
In Discipline and Punish (1977), Foucault refers to the disappearance of torture as a public spectacle and its replacement by punishment in the form of a denial of liberties. It seems as if Western culture prefers that the condemned man is no longer seen. Western penal systems deny liberties, but do not, or should not engage in explicit practices for the purpose of causing physical pain. This statement can be supported by the recent uproar over the images of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Gharaib prison in Iraq (see http://www.antiwar.com/news/?articleid=2444). These images, seen across the world, of American soldiers enacting, or actually subjecting the prisoners to severe forms of physical torture and abuse created an international outcry. Perhaps we can understand this outcry in discursive terms if we consider that the images and the reaction to them attest to the idea that the injured, tortured body in a political prisoner context, is a statement that disrupts discourse, and thus opposes or undermines power because it enacts that which power attempts to prohibit. It is unclear what the crime of these prisoners was. The honorable amendment, therefore, or the subjection of their bodies to torture, cannot be easily assimilated.
Parr’s performance brought the injured, tortured body out of its hidden recesses and back into the light, causing a disruption in the discursive field of Australian national identity, of the good neighbour and mate and the fair go for all. As Ghassan Hage, an anthropologist from the University of Sydney, argues in White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multi-Cultural Nation, “Australians are consumed by … a White Nation fantasy … a fantasy of a nation governed by white people … of white supremacy (Hage, 1998:18). Parr’s embodiment of both the political prisoner, in particular the Jew in Nazi Germany, and of the refugee in Australian detention centres, draws a cultural parallel between two conditions that can only be situated as an unauthorised statement within this national discourse. The discourse of Australian national identity does not include an identification of likeness to the Nazis, a sub-culture widely deplored for their values and moral stances. Parr’s injured body and its comment on Australian identity is therefore an excluded statement, banished from the discursive field of Australian national identity. It rubs up against the margins of the discursive field in a perpetual crisis of conflict. Parr constructs Australian nationhood as silent, aggressive, violent, isolated and condemning, and delivers this statement through his injured body defined by the historical image of the condemned, tortured, punished and imprisoned body.
Far from constituting a dramatic reduction of the refugee condition, then, Parr’s performance revealed that the injured body in performance is a politically subversive act and is capable of drawing attention to the power relations that construct it, and that it resists. Parr’s performance, and by extension the lip-sewing performance of the refugee inmates, uses the body as a potential site of resistance to power relations. In this particular case, the institution of power subjecting the body to a denial of rights, confining and restraining the physical body and thus directly affecting it, was the Australian Government and their laws and policies on immigration. The violent and painful ‘inscription’ on the bodies of Parr and the refugees symbolises simultaneously both the effect of power as well as the resistance to it. By reclaiming their bodies and illuminating the obligations and prohibitions that their bodies were subjected to by power relations, the refugees’ bodies and Parr’s body in performance simultaneously resist the effects of power and reveal them. Parr’s body integrates both the literal inscription of the body and identity by regimes of power (the word Alien on his thigh), and makes visible and literal the effects of power. He also presents an active resistance to this inscription (the sewing together of his lips) that seeks to reclaim the body as an autonomous event and a site on which a battle can be waged.
The performance of the injured body by Parr and the refugee inmates provided Australian culture with a representation of the brutality and cruelty of immigration policy, and its denial of liberty to the refugee detainees. This denial of liberties positions the bodies of the refugee detainees in Australia as condemned prisoners according to a Western system of punitive practices that condones suspension of rights for those who break the law. The bodies of the refugees are literally imprisoned, confined and restrained. Parr’s body ruptured discourse in a number of ways. He created an image through his body that recoiled from the frame of representation because of the visceral nature of the ‘realness’ of the injury. Parr also presented the excessive body, and thus his body transgressed categorisation in the discursive field of the proper and acceptable social body.
As I stated earlier in this paper, Kafka’s suggestion in The Penal Colony is that the punished or condemned and injured body is a public body, its message intended for wider society. Parr’s performance and the performance of the refugee inmates support this notion. In both instances, the punished or condemned body was situated as a political statement, aimed at the same audience, the Australian public, with the intent of revealing and resisting the regime of power that was operating to construct and maintain a situation riddled with social injustice and a violation of human rights.
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Jane Blocker (2004). What the Body Cost: Desire, History and Performance(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press)
David Bromfield (1991). Identities: A Critical Study on the work of Mike Parr 1970-1990(Perth, WA: University of Western Australia Press)
Judith Butler (1993). Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge)
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Armando R Favazza (1996). Bodies under siege: self-mutilation and body modification in culture and psychiatry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press)
Michel Foucault (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Pantheon)
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Malevitsch: A Political Arm, Mike Parr, Art Space, Sydney: 2002
‘Close the Concentration Camps’, Mike Parr, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne: June 2002